7th Circuit orders judge to reconsider dismissal of prisoner’s suit

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Finding that a District Court judge should have tried to learn why an inmate had not paid his initial filing fee on a lawsuit before the judge dismissed it for nonpayment, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the lower court to take another look at the case.

In Leonard Thomas v. Keith Butts, et al., 12-2902, inmate Leonard Thomas sued prison officials and medical personnel at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, alleging they violated 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for deliberate indifference to his epilepsy in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ordered Thomas to pay an initial partial filing fee of $8.40 based on Thomas’ average monthly balance on his prisoner trust account of $43.50 and current ending balance of 2 cents.

A month after the payment deadline passed, Magnus-Stinson dismissed the case without prejudice because the fee hadn’t been paid. Thomas sent a letter to the court five weeks after the dismissal seeking to appeal it. His delay in payment was because he had no funds in his account, and his delay appealing was because he did not have access to the law library, he told the judge. Magnus-Stinson then extended his deadline to appeal, and Thomas filed his appeal.

“[B]efore dismissing Thomas’s suit, the district court should have attempted to learn why the fee had not been paid by, for example, issuing a show-cause order. Thomas asserts on appeal that he could not pay the initial fee because he simply had no funds and no income when payment was due. That may be correct: The transaction record that Thomas submitted to the district court shows that his ending account balance was only $0.02, that he received no deposits in the previous two months, and that only $1.50 had been deposited into the account during the previous three months,” the per curiam opinion states. “But the truth of his assertion that he lacked funds, and whether he can be faulted for lacking them, is for the district court to determine in the first instance.”


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